Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
One of the most unpleasant and trying experiences that any manager will have to deal with sooner or later is having to fire or let someone go… It’s one of the things that I’ve seen managers do extremely badly. When we think about it, the topic is not usually discussed in business schools and procedures manuals only show you how to protect the company against potentially adverse reactions from the employee, nothing else.
It’s going to be a traumatic experience for the person being fired, without a doubt, yet I think it needs to be approached in a completely different way than how it’s normally done. My intention is give tips for making the whole experience as humane as possible.
1. Communicating the bad news: You need to do it in a professional environment, behind closed doors. I still can’t understand why people meet over lunch to do these things or to break up their girlfriend/boyfriend/partner… Seriously, I think there’s times that we don’t consider the other person. What are you trying to avoid by doing it in a public place? To stop them from causing a “fuss”? If you think that, you’re being selfish with a capital S. You can’t talk freely about private things in a public place, and apart from that, you don’t feel like eating after such an experience.
Never fire anyone when you’re angry (when I say that, I mean pissed off). It’s the easiest way to create a conflict that could turn into a nasty legal battle.
2. Give them the reasons, but no need to kick them when they’re down. What’s the point in telling them that they’re hopeless or listing all the things they’ve done wrong?
It’s extremely important to tell them why they’re being let go, but avoid resorting to personal attacks and slurs. If possible, base your arguments on specific facts or numbers.
There can be a number of reasons for firing someone; I can’t list them all in this post, but I’m going to mention the most important ones:
- If the problem is performance, approach it as a lack of suitability for the position due to their profile or skills. There are people that work well in a traditional company setup, but that will never be successful in a start-up, as the speed required is completely different.
- If they are being let go to their lack of training, it’s a good idea to mention it, as you’re giving them the opportunity to step up their skills (if they want to) for the future. I’ve had to replace many people over the years despite having warned them from day one that their English wasn’t good enough. If the person hasn’t rectified the situation after a reasonable length of time, having warned them their level was not enough, you can rest easy.
- Lack of understanding with their boss; it’s one reason that many often shy away from (I don’t know why) and it’s one of the most common ones. Let’s be honest, it’s happened to all of us. There’s people you get on well with instantly, no questions asked, and there’s other people that not even after two hours in the same room are you able to get them to understand what you are asking of them.
- And of course, the easiest one and the less hurtful for the person involved is cost reduction.
Like in any other situation, talk about the positive things they’ve done: “Despite having done an excellent job in managing A, B, C… you haven’t been able to achieve D, E, F…”
3. Allow them to talk and get it off their chest, and if they personally attack you with malicious comments, it’s better not to respond. That being said, I know there are some people that cannot avoid replying, but remember, it’s better to exercise restraint when speaking. Remember, you’re letting that person go. Allow them to let off steam, even it’s with you. If they are really disrespectful, it’s better to reply with something like “I know this is a really difficult for you and I’m not going to take anything that you say at this time to heart, but please, try to control yourself”.
4. Letter of termination: There are times that lawyers write offensive letters of termination to cover themselves against possible lawsuits from dismissed employees. The worst experience I’ve had was once when I left several dismissals in the hands of the lawyer and the head of HR who, despite being over 30, were still rather green. Such a mess was created as a result that I decided to personally apologise for the contents of the letter.
The next time, the contents had the same legalese, but it wasn’t offensive. Apart from that, emphasis was placed on the fact that the letter didn’t reflect the reality and we were obliged to write it in that manner to prevent legal eventualities.
5. Letter of recommendation and references: Provided the person has had a good attitude to their work, I provide a letter of recommendation that highlights the aspects that that person has done well in my company. I also provide my telephone number for references.
When I’m called to give a reference, I don’t lie. I highlight what was good about that person and what didn’t work. Also, if I see that it was due to personal misunderstanding or the surroundings, I mention it. Remember, there are some people that can be rather mediocre in one company and completely different, top class employees in another.
6. The dismissal. Companies are NOT a sect, people should be able to join and leave freely. The American style of collecting your things and putting them in a box while the security guard escorts you to the door is absurd and only works with aggressive individuals. If someone wants to send an official farewell email, let them, providing you can check it beforehand. Normal people write appropriate farewell emails. Think that they can always send it from their own email address. Give them a dignified send-off, allowing them saying goodbye properly, collecting their things in good time. If they want to close pending issues and pass them on to others, it demonstrates a lot on their behalf. And if one day they want to call in to say hello, always leave the door open.
7. Remove access to corporate resources: If the person doesn’t have a transition period, I think this should be done. I’ve seen sales reps that have taken the client database (an offense), others that have deleted data… Well, it’s probably 1 out of every 1000 employees that does this sort of thing, but it has been done.
But do explain it to them politely and refer to company policy, “I know that you’re not going to do anything, but we have to remove your access to the systems. It’s company policy”.
If they want to copy personal data from their PC, allow them to do so in the presence of someone else.
Essentially, there shouldn’t be any important company data/information that is just on their PC, as it should have already be synchronised in Zyncro (or any other system) 😀
8. Let’s not be naive, I’ve said it time and time again, I’m an “anti do-gooder”. We were not all born good; there are authentic brazen players and corporate delinquants out there. I’ve had employees that have told the company that their laptop had been stolen when they had to return it, only to see them in a bar with the laptop months later, others that took fake long-term sick leave to prevent being fired, or others still that said they were working from home and turned out to be surfing the Internet all day long.
I’ve had to fire some right characters like that in my life. With this kind of people, you need to have everything in order.
In my case, there’s no letter of reference and if they call me to give references, I’ll give them the whole truth.
You need to be prepared for adverse reactions, from emails to the whole company telling everyone what a evil person you are to bombing you or the company on social networks. I could write a whole book about how to manage these crises on social networks, or at least a proper post (I’ll stick it on the list).
My experience is that these types of action must always receive a response, always. One of the biggest mistakes in my life was not answering an email sent by an ex-partner of mine that we fired because he didn’t pull his weight. The lies were so absurd that I though that no one would believe him. It gave me more trouble in the following months fighting the rumours that started as a result of that email than if I had replied clearly and forcefully at the time: “Sling mud, some may stick!”
9. Can you help? Getting back to the normal people, think what you can do apart from a letter of recommendation. Can you recommend them to another company or friend? Is there any budget to pay for an outplacement (although these days, it seems not…). Is there a training course or master’s that you think could help them?
10. Finally, remember that you’re letting a person go, not a resource like a printer. Be kind. If they suggest a request of a legal nature that doesn’t affect the company and you can help them, investigate as to whether you can accept it. A human, sympathetic approach in this situation may enable you to keep on good terms with the person you’ve let go for the rest of your life.
I hope this post will be handy as a guide for the next time you have to go through the unpleasant experience of having to let someone go.
Written with iPad and evernote on a flight from Tokyo – Frankfurt